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Behaviorism at 100


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This article is more wishful thinking than facts.

The fact is that there is no functioning discipline of "Behaviorology."

Here is the reality. There are perhaps a few dozen behaviorists who reliably call themselves "Behaviorologists" among the thousands who do not. They have minor but interesting publication read by very few outside their number. They occasionally publish articles promoting their ideas in more widely read journals. Even so, they remain almost entirely unknown even to their fellow behavior analysts. Most behavior analysts--a substantially growing number of late--remain in departments of psychology, get degrees in psychology, accept the fact (sometimes grudgingly) that what they are doing is a kind of psychology, and continue in the manner of Watson and Skinner to try to divest psychology of its prescientific baggage and make it into the "science of behavior." If they want to be distinctive, they call themselves "behavior analysts." These facts are not altered by the existence of a small number of academic departments devoted substantially or entirely to behavior analysis at universities that also have psychology departments. These may be the seeds of a separate discipline in the future. For now, however, they function more as speciality enclaves that remain functionally and practically tied to their historical and conceptual roots in psychology. I studied in such a department--and was ultimately granted a Ph.D. in "Developmental and Child Psychology." My mentor had a degree in psychology, as did his, and his. These facts are also not altered by the existence of laws and regulations in some states specifically addressing the practice of applied behavior analysis as a speciality. Those laws and regulations are not acts of disciplinary subdividing. They are pragmatic reactions to the need to establish clear and recognized standards for the skills required to effectively treat autism.

Unfortunately, this article seems less of an attempt to speak about the first 100 years of behaviorism, and more of an attempt to promote the agenda of a very tiny minority within the field. It is true that psychology is not yet the natural science of behavior Watson and Skinner hoped it would become. However, such things do not occur quickly. More than a century after Claude Bernard, medicine continues have trouble divesting itself of prescientific notions of vitalism--as evidenced by things such as the availability of Reiki and homeopathy in mainstream hospitals. Despite slow pace, things are changing. Unlike even a decade ago, few seriously argue against the superiority of behavioral approaches in developmental disabilities, head injury, anxiety disorders, habit problems, and a growing number of other areas. Even in language we see behavioral notions being reintroduced after a long exile.

It is difficult enough when behaviorism is misrepresented by its critics. What are we supposed to do when we get it from our friends?

James T. Todd, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Eastern Michigan University

posted by James Todd
December 14, 2011

 

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